This is an extract from Don’t Burn Out Stand Out by Bethany Ainsley
The founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, grew frustrated with psychology’s attention to the negative and a relatively limited focus on happiness, wellbeing and flourishing.
He pioneered a revolution through the positive psychology movement which focuses on emotions such as happiness, kindness and hope, and character strengths, including self-esteem and how such traits can be applied to everyday activities for a meaningful life.
Positive psychology is intended to complement, enrich and understand human experience rather than replace or eliminate disadvantage or suffering. Its theories explain that happiness, character strengths and positive relationships act as a buffer against setbacks. It’s essential to feel engaged and to be able to draw meaning from our work or to be working towards a purpose. According to University of Michigan professor Christopher Peterson, research in the field has proved that living a good life can be taught and for the most part, people are happy and generally resilient. Good days have three factors in common: autonomy, competence and connection to others.
The benefits of positive psychology
Increased confidence and awareness of personal strengths: Applying specific positive psychology practices can help you identify strengths that might have otherwise been missed. Focusing on strengths can help increase confidence, enthusiasm and resilience.
Improved relationships: Studies have shown that the strength of our relationships plays a significant role in our levels of happiness. The way in which you communicate with others is vital in building good relationships. Focusing on positive, yet truthful and authentic, communication can be of significant benefit to you and those you communicate with.
Increased focus on health and wellbeing: Actively practising positive psychology techniques on a regular basis is one way of actively encouraging healthy behaviour change. Research has shown significant health benefits, such as cardiovascular recovery after a stressful event can be sped up through positive emotions. Another example is the immune function, which can be boosted by mindfulness meditation.
Focus on success: Positive psychology techniques can help shape the way you think about events in your life. This can provide you with the best possible mindset to overcome fear and challenges and to be confident and persistent in the pursuit of success.
Stronger communities: Whether it’s in the workplace or at home, positive psychology techniques can be practised by all to increase a positive environment. Those that carry out acts of kindness, for example, not only get a boost in wellbeing, but are more appreciated and accepted by their peers. Happiness is contagious and those surrounded by happy friends, colleagues and family members are more likely to be happy themselves. In the workplace, if employees are happy, it can also improve how they respond to customers. The knock-on effect of all of this is an environment where individuals feel cared for and are able to thrive.
Applying positive psychology to everyday activities
There are many ways in which we can apply positive psychology to everyday life. This includes practising gratitude each day, checking in on negative self-talk and carrying out simple acts of kindness.
Here are two positive psychology tasks that you can do right away.
Task 1: A letter of self-compassion
When confronted with failures, mistakes or shortcomings, it’s important to treat yourself with compassion, care and concern. Try and set aside thirty minutes of your day to complete this task. Make sure that you’re in a comfortable and relaxing space that allows you to fully focus on the task at hand.
First, choose a personal aspect of yourself that you dislike, that could do with improvement or that you are self-critical about. Write in detail how this perceived negative trait makes you feel. What images, emotions and memories does this evoke? Next, imagine someone you trust and respect who loves you unconditionally. It could be a friend, family member or a romantic partner. This person recognises both your positive and negative traits. If you ever let them down, they are always forgiving and understanding and will always help you find your way to grow. Write a letter to yourself from this person’s perspective:
>> How do they see you from their perspective?
>> What do they say to you?
>> How do they encourage you?
>> How do they support you to make changes in your life?
Once you’ve drafted your letter, put it aside for fifteen minutes. Return to it and absorb the words and meaning of the letter. Feel the emotions and the natural high it gives you when you read the words of encouragement, support, compassion and acceptance. Each time you are feeling down or negative about your life or work or lacking in self-belief and need a boost, read your letter, absorb it, embrace the positive vibes it gives you, and most importantly of all, accept yourself in the way that your trusted friend or family member accepts you. This is the first step to change.
Task 2: Treasure box
Look for a box that you find appealing – something that makes you want to explore it. If you’re feeling creative, perhaps add some personal touches. (If you have children, this is a great activity for them to try, too.) Once your chosen treasure box is ready, it’s time to start collecting happy memories, thoughts and items that bring you joy. Whenever something makes you feel happy, write it down, take a picture or draw it and then pop it into your treasure box. The next time you find yourself feeling unhappy, take out the treasure box and reflect on each item and the happiness it brings you.
Taking time out to focus on these individual memories acts as a trigger to release the positivity hormone, dopamine (also known as the ‘happy hormone’). For example, when you look at a photograph of your favourite holiday destination, it brings back memories from when you were there, what you did, who you were with and so on. These positive memories can reset your brain into thinking positively.